Brian Kelly wanted an athletic upgrade at nickel back.
That meant he ultimately benched one of his captains, swapping out safety Matthias Farley for freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford early in training camp.
But when Crawford tore his ACL in mid-August it forced Kelly to reevaluate. Instead of returning to Farley, he flipped KeiVarae Russell into the utility role, taking Notre Dame’s best defensive back and moving him toward the line of scrimmage.
On Saturday night against Texas, Kelly will learn the value of a new nickel.
“Man-to-man,” Kelly said. “So the ability to play man-to-man out of that position, Matthias is very smart, but we didn't want to put him on an island and have to have him play man-to-man coverage out of that position.”
But that’s Russell’s strength. And if you didn’t already know that, just ask him.
The change doesn’t take Russell out of the base defense, where he’ll still play outside the numbers as a true cornerback when the Irish have four defensive linemen and three linebackers on the field. But when Notre Dame shifts to nickel junior Devin Butler will replace Russell at corner while Russell takes over for Sam linebacker James Onwualu.
How much does Notre Dame actually play nickel? In the first seven games of last season with the defense at full strength, the Irish were in nickel more than base in six games. Purdue was the lone exception.
“There’s so much more confidence I have in the slot because I know (when) I have some kind of help it’s over,” Russell said. “They got their fastest guy in the slot? We’re not worried about that. It enhances our defense.”
The challenge for Russell will be more mental, with nickel forcing him to understand how he fits into the front more than as a pure cornerback. Yet Russell savors that challenge because it comes with a payoff.
Last year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder made a habit of blitzing Farley from the nickel, enough that he finished with 3.5 sacks, just a half-sack off the team lead. Now Russell gets that opportunity, which means he could blitz off one edge while Jaylon Smith stalks the other.
“Matthias … I’m not saying he can’t blitz or nothing, but I am faster. We’ll see if that helps,” Russell said. “I’m excited for that to be sent on pressures because as a running back or a quarterback trying to run away, I don’t think it’s gonna work. Especially a quarterback. If he tries to run away I’m just gonna smile because a sack is coming.
“Unless you Mike Vick, you ain’t getting away.”
Russell said he prefers covering slot receivers because of the space that matchup offers. Instead of always playing press coverage, Russell sets two yards off the line of scrimmage. He said his game is patient at the snap, letting slot receivers juke and fake their way right into him.
“When you guess, that’s when you’re playing at the offense’s pace,” Russell said. “Space is my friend. It sounds crazy. With all that space he thinks he can do all this crazy stuff, nah. Just wasting time.”
Texas plans to start Marcus Johnson at slot receiver, a 6-foot-1, 197-pound senior who caught a pass in every game last season but scored just once and posted more than 40 yards receiving in a game just twice. Even with just 27 catches for 313 yards last fall, Johnson represents the Longhorns’ top returning receiver.
If Russell plays as well as he talks, Johnson’s senior year may get off to a rough start.
“Putting him in the slot just shuts down the slot,” said safety Max Redfield. “The traits that he has are perfect for it. He’s extremely quick and has that recovery speed as well.
“At first obviously he made a couple mistakes seeing situations that he’s never seen before. He adapted really fast, really intelligent guy. It’s not something that’s overwhelming for him at all. He fit into it perfectly.”